Cancer is the leading cause of death for firefighters in the U.S.

HUNTINGTON, W.Va. (WSAZ) -- Firefighters rush into burning buildings, but one of the most dangerous health risks may not become apparent until after the smoke clears.

The International Association of Firefighters says cancer is now the leading cause of death for firefighters in America.

According to an NBC report this week, departments across the country are reporting elevated cancer rates.

While thirty years ago, firefighters were most often diagnosed with asbestos-related cancers, today the cancers are more often leukemia, lymphoma or myeloma, officials told NBC.

The report goes on to say that the CDC/National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health study tracked nearly 30,000 firefighters across the country in 2010 and found higher rates of cancer than the general population.

These statistics will hit home for departments across the nation, including in Huntington, West Virginia.

It was difficult for the entire crew when a firefighter of more than 20 years passed away from cancer.

"I had been on the fire department a little bit longer than Keith," said Jerry Beckett. "Actually, our first few years we worked opposite shifts."

Keith Pyles was a Huntington fire captain. Beckett, who know works for emergency services, got to know Pyles through work.

Eventually, both men were promoted to captain. They worked in the same station, but on opposite shifts. Then Beckett was promoted to Deputy Chief and was Pyles's shift commander.

The station at 14th Street West and Madison Avenue is where they worked side-by-side.

"Keith was a great firefighter," said Beckett. "He was attentative to detail. He wanted to make sure his people were well-trained. He was all about safety. Everybody needed to go home safe and sound, no injuries or anything."

Many at the department considered Pyles to be strict -- a character of tough love. Beckett even said Pyle was sometimes difficult to work for early in his career, but softened over the years.

"He held a very high standard for himself and expected everybody else to have that same standard," said Beckett. "So he did push his people and he could get hard to deal with sometimes to be honest with you, but he did it all because he wanted to do a good job and he wanted his people to do a good job."

In addition to being a great firefighter and a "remarkable" individual, that man turned into a good friend of Beckett's.

A true outdoorsman, Pyles loved hunting, Beckett said. Pyles was deer hunting one day when he stepped out of his tree stand one day and his leg broke.

"The type of cancer he had, it made your bones very brittle," said Beckett.

He was diagnosed with Multiple Myeloma -- devastating news for the Huntington Fire Department.

"It was horrible," said Beckett. "We took it very hard. He was always upbeat and told us not to worry about him, he'd be fine."

Beckett says Pyles pushed himself and didn't want to be pitied. He didn't want any special favors -- he just wanted to keep working.

"He worked right up until the time that he just couldn't come to work anymore," said Beckett. "Keith stayed in the station as long as he could, rode a fire truck as long as he could because that's what he loved, but it got to the point physically where he just couldn't do it anymore."

That also set the bar higher for everybody else.

"Keith was the sick time standard we had," said Beckett. "People would call in with various ailments, a cold or sprained finger, whatever it might be and everybody would be like OK, I want you to walk across the hall and see Captain Pyles over there and tell me you're sick."

Through the ups and downs, Beckett was by Pyles' side.

"I like to think I was one of Keith's best buddies," said Beckett. "I tried to take care of him the best I could. I visited him."

One visit was more tough than the others. Pyles called Beckett over and asked him if he would handle the funeral arrangements.

"He was so humble and giving towards the end, I asked him if he wanted his casket on fire truck," said Beckett.

Pyles told him no, knowing the labor and work that goes into arranging a fire truck memorial. He didn't want his crew to go to "all that trouble," said Beckett.

"I said well, we'll go to that trouble," said Beckett.

Another wish of Keith's was to have an American flag draped over his casket, but he didn't want to offend veterans. Keith was regrettably not a veteran. However, Beckett quickly reminded him of the flags draped over the caskets of the 9/11 firefighters and said Keith was deserving of that same honor for his public service.

"It was a huge turnout for his funeral from all around the tri-state," said Beckett. "A lot of firefighters, EMS, police officers. It was a huge funeral and he went out in style."

Pyles died in 2002 from bone cancer, leaving behind a wife and daughter.

Beckett was with his friend as he took his last breath. He said being there was comforting -- to see Pyles free from a tremendous amount of pain.

Researchers say one big reason for the elevated reports of cancer is that firefighters today are fighting very different blazes. Modern homes and businesses full of synthetics, plastics and chemicals that can explode much faster and coat firefighters in a toxic soot.

"There's formaldehyde, there's ammonia, there's all kinds of different chemicals," said Beckett.

To try to fight that, Beckett said oxygen masks can hold more air. They previously lasted for about 30 minutes, but now, it's standard for them to last for an hour.

However, that will not keep firefighters completely safe.

"Firefighters are exposed to so many different things and even though you have a self-contained breathing apparatus on, some things are absorbed through the skin," said Beckett. "A really dangerous time for firefighters is after the fire is out and they're going through, it's called overhaul, they go through and they're digging out hot spots and things."

Crews are also more thorough about washing uniforms now.

"That's a big thing that has changed is just the cleanliness and not exposing other people to these carcinogens," said Beckett.

Current Huntington Fire Chief Jan Rader tells WSAZ that their gear is up to standards and they are constantly monitoring safety trends.

Although he is not on the front lines anymore, Beckett works with emergency services, doing his part to apply for grants and get state-of-the-art gear for first responders.

He said fighting fires will always be a dangerous job. It's what they sign up for. However, he is glad that this research is at least bringing more attention to the correlation between the occupation and cancer.

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